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Skylon, the Next Generation Spaceship

Virgin galactic spaceman

Space travel has been very wasteful with rocket costing hundreds of millions of dollars, only to be used once.

This will change thanks to British engineer Alan Bond who has been developing a new concept space ship. He calls it the Skylon spaceplane which is designed for multiple uses and requires minimal repairs and turnaround time.

“The intention is to replace existing rockets,” Bond says. “The technology we are working on would enable more frequent and reliable missions by large factors.”

His design is a HOTOL (Horizontal Take Off and Landing) similar to a regular plane but with a much longer runway. Plus Bond’s team at Reaction Engines Ltd. has invented a new engine, the SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine).

Unlike heavy rockets that carry several fuel tanks, the SABRE powers the spacecraft from a single chamber carrying both liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. It reduces the load by taking in oxygen during the ascent, which is then cooled and combined with hydrogen to make fuel. Once an altitude of 28 kilometers is gained, the engine converts to using the stored liquid oxygen.

sklon spaceship breakaway
“We have passed the major obstacles, and what we have now are normal engineering problems,” said Bond.

The European Space Agency agrees, having approved the engine in a series of tests. “The idea has been around since the 1950s but this is the first time anyone has managed to achieve a working system,” said ESA propulsion expert Mark Ford.

Bond says that engine tests flights could take place as early as 2018.

ESA estimates the Skylon could meet its cost target of €70 million ($94 million).

Bond says his ship will be “essentially a truck to haul kit cheaply into space on a very regular basis.”

Once the Skylon has proven it’s self, it can be used for more ambitious targets. Bond ssays human colonization of other planets as inevitable, and believes this system will work for deep space exploration too.

SABRE engine

SABRE engine

Experts believe a shift is necessary, “There would need to be an increased rate of flights to lower the cost of an initially more expensive launch system,” said David Baker of the British Interplanetary Society. “But if there were 100 a year the cost would fall through the floor … It’s the very thing that’s needed not only to service the existing industry but also to open broader applications.”

The demand is there to support such a volume of flights, said Baker, listing a huge backlog of clients.

The Skylon plans to reach the International Space Station by 2022. Beyond this, the scope is unlimited.

Skylon, the Next Generation Spaceship

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